I remember starting a new job that I thought I was prepared for, then one hour into the first morning, I felt like I was drowning. I had spent four years at university, had a years’ placement in preparation for this moment, and those years felt like the vapour of steam in light of what was in front of me. I was staring at a screen, knowing what I needed to do, but I did not have a clue how to make it happen! I suddenly found myself being very helpful with everyone else on the floor, offering to make them Tea or Coffee to try and delay starting or thinking; even hoping that in those moments of brewing coffee and squeezing Teabags, I would somehow have a divine moment of inspiration that would give me the knowledge I needed for this task that was in front of me and this task that was beyond me. Instead, I was helplessly beyond help and needed something beyond myself to help me at that moment.
Why Ash Wednesday
Yesterday we had our pancakes and enjoyed perhaps the best Tuesday of the year! Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that officially marks the beginning of Lent, the forty days (not including Sundays) that lead us to Easter as we reflect the wilderness experience of Jesus in preparation for his Ministry and the Cross. So Why Ash Wednesday? What is it all about? It is a day that marks in a sense a spirit of Repentance and Death; Repentance in that we recognise our sin and helplessness in light of eternity and that we need some help! The ash is perhaps the most potent symbol of the fragility of the human experience in that it is what we are from and to what we return; think of those words that Echo each committal service – “Earth to Earth, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.” The “Ash” of this Wednesday is nothing more than a symbolic representation of what Repentance is – death to ourselves – and the fruit of life outside of God – Spiritual Death. There is no potency or power in the act or the representation but a reminder of the reality of our situation that we are helpless and, in light of the eternal reality of our lives, needs something beyond ourselves to act. As one article noted:
”“When we come forward to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday, we are saying that we are sorry for our sins, and that we want to use the season of Lent to correct our faults, purify our hearts, control our desires and grow in holiness so we will be prepared to celebrate Easter with great joy”1
Thus, Ash Wednesday as the Beginning of Lent marks an intentional day and season when we, as followers of Jesus, choose to remember our sinfulness and helplessness without Grace. When we choose to remember that cost of which Calvary bore to bring to effect the Grace of God. Hence, today we consider our sinfulness and inability to salvation ourselves without God. We consider it perhaps for the first time, as we stand before God and realise that we are not worthy without the work of Christ to do so in light of eternity, as we realise that no matter our intentions, our efforts or striving such is the depravity of sin that we need something else. As John Bunyan rhymed, “One leak will sink a ship, and one sin will destroy a sinner.” Thus, this ash Wednesday, we ponder the deadly truth that our ship has not one leak but is riddled by holes. We could not fix it if we tried, and while we are sombre in our reality today, we delight in that truth because it brings us on our knees before God and allows us to receive the gift of Grace through the Gift of faith by the merciful act of a loving God. Today is the day that we remember the struggle of our disciples, that even when saved, we still sin that is the active choice of “Preferring anything above Christ is the very essence of sin.” as John Piper concluded, “It must be fought.”
The Perfect Penitential Psalm
There is no more extraordinary Old Testament figure in the human imagination than King David; when we think of epic heroes, he is the one who our minds will go to. He seemed to have everything; Wise, Powerful, Strong, successful and devoted to God. When we picture the sort of person we think God wants us to be, we probably show someone close to him. Yet, all we tend to remember is the beautiful bits, those moments that make us Jealous, like when God called David one after his own heart, or when he seemed to have such success in life, faith and leadership. We set aside the realities of 2 Samuel 11 and 12 when David displayed the fullness of his humanity, sinfulness and brokenness as he sought the desires of his own heart and not God’s. One wrong decision led to another, and another and a cascading avalanche of sin in which he lost sight of God and thought it could sort it out himself. From glancing at Bathsheba, desiring her and then taking her by force, by then casting her aside and at the realisation that she was pregnant conceiving an evil plan to cover up his adultery and sin, to being confronted by the moral character of Uriah, her husband and when left with no other choice choosing to kill him rather than kill his own Sin. What was unique in it all was the naivety of David: he thought he had “got away with it“ and that God would not have noticed our considered his sin. To the point that when the Prophet Nathan confronted him, Nathan had to make clear that it was the sin he was talking about. To Such a realisation, David cried, “I Have sinned against the Lord.”
Our Psalm is the realisation of that moment, as David reflects on the sinful state of the human heart and the hopelessness of life without the intervention of God. Thus we see the realisation of the truth of human sinfulness and the wonderful effectual reality of Grace unfold in three stages:
- A Recognition of Sinfulness (51:1-6)
- A Please For Graceful Mercy (51:7-13)
- A Declaration of Thanks (51:14-19)
A Recognition of Human Sinfulness (1-6)
There I sat at my desk laughing at how I thought the first day would be easy enough on the drive-in, confronted with a coding problem that was beyond my ability and even my knowledge to try and figure out a way to faff through. I was completely and utterly helpless, and the reality of such a state terrified me. I thought I had been okay, that University and all my knowledge would prepare me for such a moment, and yet, there I sat, wholly found out and helpless, and in such a state, I had no choice but to ask for help.
David came to the end of his sequence of bad decisions and must have breathed out a little as everything seemed to settle down, and Bathsheba settled into life in the Royal household, and everything seemed to return to normal. Perhaps, he even convinced himself that it was not that bad; there were people out there who were worse than him and had done worse than him. Yet, God did not allow him to get too comfortable on his thrown and laurels as Nathan entered the room to point out the devastating effects of his sequence of bad decisions. Then when hit with the reality of how evil he had been, how helpless he had become and how far he had drifted from God’s plan and from God, David finally realised his peril. Yet, even amid the realisation of peril, we see the beautiful truth that David knows God is a God of Mercy as he cries out:
”Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions.” (51:1)
It is in light of the Mercy of God that David can remember his sinfulness as he asks God to wash away his sinfulness and deal with what he has done. So what do we see in these verses? There are several things, yet, the first thing is that David recognises his own sinfulness and the consistent presence of his sin (my sin is always before me (3) ). Then David has acknowledged that while his sin has been in his choices and against people, it is only before God in light of this situation. The place where our sin bears its most significant consequences is not in light of one another, but before God; hence David is able to confess that it is against God alone he has sinned and done evil. Furthermore, God is right in his judgement before him! Sin is the idolatry of our heart, and at this moment, David has recognised what Timothy Keller put succinctly: “What is an idol (sin)? It is anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” Sin is a constant reality of the human condition with eternal consequences. Thus, it requires an act from one eternal to deal with it; David knew this as he sought the Mercy of God.
A Please for Graceful Mercy (7-13)
Our sin has eternal consequences for each of us; thus, for there to be any hope, we need help from one enteral. Thankfully in our helplessness, we are not left without hope! David knew this as he turned to form his sequence of bad decisions and finally found wisdom as he cried out to God and sought his Mercy. Mercy that when received through faith and repentance has the cleansing effect of hyssop. A shrub that played an essential part in the Jewish religious cycle would have been used in the Passover celebrations.2 Thus, Hyssop symbolises actual Spiritual cleansing that will bear the effects of making all who come to God in Repentance whiter than the purest Snow. Imagine such an image in an arid land that was often dry and humid. It is the image of the restorative power of God’s grace and Mercy and the reality that will be for all who turn to God in repentance and faith through the cross of Christ. Additionally, the prayer of David is not only that God would remove the effects of his sin from him, but do something in him beyond that moment: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. (51:10) David seeks forgiveness for what he has done, yet, more beautifully and powerfully, he seeks help from God to keep his mind, and life focused on its true cause – the Glory of God. The cry for Mercy is not just in the moment but the continuous help of God to live for God in the routine of life, captured beautifully by the words: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
David is not only praying for Repentance; He is asking for help to continue to live with God and for God. Showing us that Grace is effective in the life of the believer as he acknowledges what he will do in response to it: “Then I will teach transgressors your ways, so that sinners will turn back to you” (13). Thus, all of this brings us to the great realisation if sin has eternal consequences that will require something beyond us then David is praying confident that God will deal with it not just now but in light of eternity. Grace received through Repentance has eternal consequences and eternal effects. It does not just save us, it changes us. That David is able to pray for forgiveness and help to live for God is based on a understanding that God will do something that will once and for all deal with effects us sin, David is praying in response to who God is but also in expectation of what God will do; David is praying without knowledge of the Cross but in expectations of its effects. That God would one and for all deal with the sin of the elect, then (by the Holy Spirit) empower his children to live for him and make him known. David is praying in knowledge of the greater Hyssop to Come – Jesus – and with the assurance that the Grace of God both saves and sustains. How does God enables us to live with him and for him? Through his dwelling presence: thus, even our faithful discipleship is a gift of Grace by the dwelling of God the Holy Spirit. Hence Davids’s words in verse 11:
Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me.
We know the character of the heart of God that he is merciful and compassionate; it is this Character that enables us to approach him in Repentance (acknowledging our sin before him) because we know he will react not with what we deserve (Justice), but with Mercy and Grace. Why? to display his glory and love to the world! Not only will he deal with all our sins in the light of eternity; he will also help us to live now; not just as we respond to Grace by telling others of it in the hope that they would return to God; but also in the reorientation of our lives! We will no longer be those who simply live for ourselves but live for God; hence not only does David share with others the good news of God’s Grace, but now his life lives in light of knowing God more. David lives to Worship hence the reframe of the last verses.
A Declaration of Thanks (14-19)
In response to his knowledge of God, confession of sin, and pleading for Mercy, David knows there is only one response to the beautiful reality of Grace – Praise. Hence, he promises God (knowing that God would do it) that he will respond in Joy and Praise if God hears his repentant-cry for Mercy and delivery. That is, he will worship God! It’s is a beautiful reflection, in response to the saving work of God, David will not be thankful that he is okay in light of eternity but will respond to God by giving God what he is due – Praise. Praise that is not some form of transactional payment but a response of gratitude for the wonder of Grace. Hence, David will joyfully sing of God’s righteousness (51:14) and praise God with every word of his mouth (51:15).
David will get response in Praise because this is the response of a heart that belongs to God, a heart that sees in depravity and in contrast to that sees the beauty of God, his grace and life with him. We come to a knowledge of our sin, not to punish ourselves but to recognise all the more the beauty of God’s merciful Grace that he won through the Cross. Our sins they may be many, but his Mercy is more! Hence, David concludes by summarising a lesson he has learnt: God does find delight in those who trust in religion, moral, or their own effort; he delights those who approach him with a heart that knows itself and the beauty of What God offers. This is what David means by the contrast of verses 16 and 17. The Lord could not care less how religious someone is; he could not care how many sacrifices the person offers, or in our case, how committed we are to church, how moral our living unless first and foremost our heart is in the right place and belongs to him. David is not dismissing the Jewish Religious system but showing us that the foundation of our living for God is not the mundane of routine religion but a heart that belongs to God and beats with sincere faith. It is the heart that makes the sacrifice acceptable to God. Consider the widow and her two coins (Mark 12). As one commentator notes, “Ritual without genuine repentance is useless” in light of eternity; the sacrifice God requires is a broken spirit as the NLT captures the rest of verse 17: “You will not reject a broken and repentant heart, O God.” With that assurance, let us consider our own sinfulness, bring to God what we need to, then delight at the Grace that we receive through faith, Which affects us not and affects our eternity. Then like David, let us live lives that display the Grace we have received as we tell others about God and give God glory by our lives and worship in response to the Grace that we have received. Our Sins are many, but his Mercy is more.
- https://www.christianity.com/church/church-life/what-is-ash-wednesday-why-do-christians-celebrate-it.html ↩
- Hyssop is an important shrub mentioned in the Bible. Jewish slaves dipped a bunch of hyssop in the blood of a slain lamb and applied some on both the lintel and doorposts of their houses prior to the Passover (Ex 12:22). Hyssop was also used in ceremonial cleansing from skin disease (Lv 14:4-7) and in making the red heifer offering (Nm 19:6). ↩